Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on
disease-associated molecular phenotypes

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Meditation is becoming increasingly practiced, especially for stress-related medical conditions. Meditation may improve cellular health; however, studies have not separated out effects of meditation from vacation-like effects in a residential randomized controlled trial. We recruited healthy women non-meditators to live at a resort for 6 days and randomized to either meditation retreat or relaxing on-site, with both groups compared with ‘regular meditators’ already enrolled in the retreat. Blood drawn at baseline and post intervention was assessed for transcriptome-wide expression patterns and aging-related biomarkers. Highly significant gene expression changes were detected across all groups (the ‘vacation effect’) that could accurately predict (96% accuracy) between baseline and post-intervention states and were characterized by improved regulation of stress response, immune function and amyloid beta (Aβ) metabolism. Although a smaller set of genes was affected, regular meditators showed post-intervention differences in a gene network characterized by lower regulation of protein synthesis and viral genome activity. Changes in well-being were assessed post intervention relative to baseline, as well as 1 and 10 months later. All groups showed equivalently large immediate post-intervention improvements in well-being, but novice meditators showed greater maintenance of lower distress over time compared with those in the vacation arm. Regular meditators showed a trend toward increased telomerase activity compared with randomized women, who showed increased plasma Aβ42/Aβ40 ratios and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFα) levels. This highly controlled residential study showed large salutary changes in gene expression networks due to the vacation effect, common to all groups. For those already trained in the practice of meditation, a retreat appears to provide additional benefits to cellular health beyond the vacation effect.

INTRODUCTION

Ancient practices such as yoga and meditation have long been thought to combat stress and promote longevity, although empirical evidence for effects on aging processes under highly controlled experimental conditions is lacking. Further, it is inherently difficult to assess effects of meditation apart from simple relaxation. Advances in the understanding of the biological bases of aging enable better assessment of acute effects of salutary interventions on biomarkers of aging.

For example, impaired regulatory systems leading to systemic inflammation, and excessive stress responsivity, are related to biological aging1 and may partly underlie pathogenesis of cardiovascular2,3 and Alzheimer’s 4,5 diseases (AD). More recent systems biology approaches have identified gene regulatory networks associated with a diversity of biological processes, including immune and stress responses, and objectively linked them with disease or salutary states.6,7 Integrated systems biology approaches can identify gene regulatory networks, such as immune, stress and other regulatory responses, and link them with physiologic states.6

This bioinformatics approach provides an unbiased view of the immune system profile, and can be linked to changes in environmental conditions.7 These network approaches, while often applied to identifying disease profiles, can be used to identify salutary states as well, such as that which might result from intensive meditation. In addition to high-dimensional molecular data such as gene networks, blood-based biomarkers can provide an integrated overview that indexes biological aging.

Telomere length predicts both cellular health and disease in rodent models and humans.8 Shorter telomeres predict onset of cardiometabolic diseases of aging.9 Chronic stress is associated with higher inflammation, shorter telomeres, and lower activity levels of telomerase, the cellular enzyme that elongates telomeric DNA.10,11 Levels of amyloid beta (Aβ) proteins circulating in the blood appear to be stress-related in rodent models12 and may be affected by stress reduction, and greater Aβ42/Aβ40 ratios are associated with lower risk of dementia.13

Various types of meditation have been shown to improve wellbeing among different populations such as physicians and the general public.14–16 Preliminary evidence suggests that meditation-based interventions may slow cellular aging rates by increasing telomerase activity, but many such studies lacked an active control group.17,18 Recent randomized trials in breast cancer suggest that long-term intensive meditation interventions might have positive effects on telomerase activity.

One found that mindfulness-based and supportive expressive therapies were associated with telomere maintenance, compared with a ‘treatment as usual’ control group.19 A second study found that mindfulness-based stress reduction was associated with increases in telomerase after 3 months.20 Long-term mind–body interventions, including tai chi, yoga and meditation, have been associated with gene expression (GE) changes associated with inflammatory pathways21,22 as reviewed elsewhere.23,24 Short-term interventions have examined changes after one session of meditation or yoga. One study compared GE changes in experienced versus novice meditators after one session.

They found changes in both groups in inflammation, energy metabolism, mitochondrial function and telomere maintenance, but experienced meditators had greater changes.25 Another study comparing experienced meditators to novices after 8 hours of meditation examined GE changes specific to epigenetic regulatory enzymes. Changes were found only in the experienced meditators.26 Another study found threefold changes in GE in the immune cells after yoga versus a control movement program.27 These studies suggest that there are greater changes in experienced meditators than in novices after one bout. However, none of these studies examined people in more controlled residential vacation settings, where larger changes can occur in periods as short as a week. One limitation to meditation studies is that short-term relaxation as a control condition may not lead to the powerful changes that prolonged vacation could. No studies we are aware of have examined how a meditation retreat may affect GE above and beyond a relaxing vacation. Further, none of these previous studies took a systems biology approach by examining covariation across GE patterns (versus specific gene pathways).

Here we examined how exposure to a short-term intensive residential meditation retreat affected biomarkers of aging and more general regulatory networks defining a wide array of biological processes. A residential retreat provides intensive daily exposure in a controlled environment but has the added ‘vacation’ effect of taking people away from the demands of their daily lives, which alone might affect regulation of stress pathways.

Therefore, it is critical to compare the effects of a meditation retreat with an active randomized control group. Because regular meditators may have differences in brain function and structure, as suggested by meta-analyses,28 and greater changes in GE than novices, after meditation,25 we also recruited a third comparison group of experienced meditators. Our design allowed us to study the effects of meditation independent of the vacation effect, as well as to compare the effects of acute intensive meditation in regular meditators versus those newly trained in meditation.

1 Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, USA; 2 Departments of Biochemistry and Biophysics, University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, USA; 3 Capella Biosciences Inc., Palo Alto, CA, USA; 4 Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY, USA; 5 Department of Neurosciences, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA and 6 Genetics and Aging Research Unit, Department of Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, Charlestown, MA, USA. Correspondence: Dr E Schadt, Department of Genetics and Genomic Sciences, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, One Gustave L Levy Place, New York, NY 10029, US

© The National Centre for Integrative Medicine (NCIM) is a Community Interest Company (CIC) registered in England (08529099).